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Copyright (c) 1996 The American Academy of Political and
Social Science
The Annals of The American Academy of Political and
Social Science

ARTICLE: Framing Responsibility for Political Issues

July 1996

546 Annals 59


By Shanto Iyengar


THE concept of responsibility is an essential building block of all social knowledge. From the demeanor of one's next-door neighbors to the behavior of elected officials in the nation's capital, people spontaneously attribute responsibility for the behaviors they observe. Attributions of responsibility are known to exert powerful influence over a broad spectrum of interpersonal and social attitudes. 1

The two principal types of attributions correspond to causal and treatment responsibility. 2 Causal responsibility concerns the origin of a problem, while treatment responsibility focuses on who or what has the ability to alleviate the problem. Both types of attributions are especially relevant for understanding political life. Why political problems occur and recur and how they might be appropriately remedied are perennial themes in political campaigns. Do the poor prefer to remain wards of the state rather than to work for a living, or are they victims of circumstances and forces beyond their control? What course of action is likely to reduce poverty, and who are the persons or institutions with the ability to carry it out?

The importance of people's causal and treatment attributions for political issues has not been lost on those who seek public office. Since voters tend to punish or reward politicians depending upon the state of national--especially economic--conditions, incumbent officials from the president on down are quick to claim responsibility for outcomes deemed favorable and disclaim responsibility for events or decisions with negative implications. 3 The increasingly partisan and vitriolic debates over "who really did it" ...
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